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House begins debate on health-care repeal with a collegial tone

By Shailagh Murray and N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 19, 2011; 12:10 AM

This time around, there were no frightening warnings about "death panels" for the elderly or a "holocaust" of uninsured Americans.

Returning to official business Tuesday for the time since the tragedy in Tucson, the House took up a contentious issue certain to test lawmakers' powers of restraint: health-care reform. Republicans promised during the 2010 campaign to dismantle President Obama's signature domestic policy initiative, but now, in the transformed political environment of the past 10 days, the debate has come to represent a civility test for elected officials.

And sure enough, the opening hours of debate on H.R. 2, "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act," were free of the apocalyptic rhetoric that defined last year's campaigns.

One Republican, Rep. Ken Calvert (Calif.), conceded on the House floor that "Obamacare," however flawed, was "well intentioned."

For lawmakers in both parties, the sudden outbreak of collegiality represented an opportunity to prove to the public, and one another, that the slash-and-burn style that has defined House discourse lately is not the only way to conduct the nation's business.

"This new law is a fiscal house of cards," said Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), the first Republican to speak, setting the tone for the next 21/2 hours. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the panel, replied politely, "Perhaps this debate will clear up many of the myths and misinformation."

Hardly anyone cited the bill's formal title, with its mention of "killing," after the House clerk read it into the record at the start of the debate. Even outside groups, known for issuing blunt appeals to supporters, kept their rhetoric to a simmer.

Ken Hoagland, a conservative activist and chairman of the group Repeal HealthCare Act, appeared at an event with outspoken GOP Reps. Steve King (Iowa) and Michele Bachmann (Minn.) to present petitions from 535,000 Americans who support rolling back the law. The signatures are "an example to the rest of the world how even dramatic change in public policy can be effected through peaceful means," Hoagland said.

"I don't think the debate's changed. The tone has changed," said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), who also attended the event. He said he and his colleagues are praying for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and the other victims of the Tucson attack. "But when you know what this health-care bill is going to do to people, it doesn't mean that we stop pushing to get this repealed," he said.

In remarks at his weekly news conference Tuesday morning, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said rank-and-file Republicans were not given any instructions on language that may or may not be used this week. But he said he and Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) had made clear to their members that they should focus on unpopular provisions in the legislation, such as the mandate that requires individuals to purchase insurance.

"This is about health policy, this is about a policy-oriented debate. Obviously there are strong feelings on both sides of the bill. And, you know, we expect the debate to ensue on policy lines," Cantor said.

Democratic leaders also declined to provide specific directions for the debate. But House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) said he expected that Democrats would "heed their own advice and the advice of others" and address health-care repeal on its merits.

"Too much of the public debate, particularly in the media, is about incitement rather than informing," Hoyer said. "It's about making people angry, disrespecting the other point of view on the other side. This is unrelated to Arizona, but certainly Arizona has brought this into focus."

Republican claims that the new health-care law will hurt the country's fragile economic recovery and contribute to ballooning deficits resonate with the public, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. But the survey found that few opponents of the law advocate an immediate, wholesale repeal.

And even as the tenor of the debate in Congress has softened, public views of the sweeping overhaul bill remain firmly entrenched. Some 45 percent of those polled support the reform law and 50 percent oppose it, numbers that exactly match their averages in Post-ABC polls going back to August 2009.

Three-quarters of Democrats support the law, and 80 percent of Republicans oppose it; both are within a few points of their long-term averages. Independents tilt against the legislation, as they have in most previous polls.

It was Democrats who made the loudest noise Tuesday, rolling out new ads, academic studies and their own petitions in favor of the legislation.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee issued a $50,000 fundraising appeal to supporters, but rather than sounding a call to arms, the DCCC e-mail read like a form letter: "Help us hold House Republicans accountable for voting to repeal health insurance reform."

But most of the debate was waged on practical policy grounds. Lawmakers spent much of the afternoon bantering about whether small businesses would benefit or lose out under the law. Republicans cited an open letter Tuesday from 200 economic professors and analysts sharply disputing the Congressional Budget Office's contention this month that repealing the law would increase the deficit by $230 billion.

The letter's writers, including two former directors of the CBO, Douglas Holtz-Eakin and June O'Neil, dismissed that finding as based on "budgetary gimmicks." Instead they estimated that leaving the law in place could raise the deficit by $500 billion over the next decade, and nearly $1.5 trillion in the 10 years after that. The law, they wrote, "is a threat to U.S. businesses and will place a crushing debt burden on future generations of Americans."

The CBO's finding that the bill would reduce the deficit was a major factor in persuading many moderate Democrats to support it. Democrats continue to hold that the legislation will eventually lower health-care costs for the government and individuals. This month, the Center for American Progress unveiled a report by David Cutler, a Harvard economist and a prominent adviser to Obama's 2008 campaign, detailing how repeal could harm the economic recovery.

Democrats, meanwhile, touted a statement by former Senate majority leader Bill Frist, a Republican who is participating in an effort by the independent Bipartisan Policy Center to make further changes to the health-care law to ensure the system works properly.

"It is not the bill that I would have drafted," Frist said. "But it is the law of the land, and it is the platform, the fundamental platform, upon which all future efforts to make that system better, for that patient, for that family, will be based."

Cantor also the debate should set a framework for future legislation, both in style and substance.

"This is going to be a Congress that's focused on policy, effecting the kinds of reform that the American people want," he said. "Active discourse is just a piece of that, but to be sure, we have continued to say: We are going to be about a decency here, and engage and promote active debate on policy."

Staff writers Paul Kane, Felicia Sonmez, Breann Schossow and polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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